RUGBY UNION: Knowing the luck of the Irish, I'm backing the French

THE BOOKIES are offering 6-4 against both England and France for the Six Nations Championship. Ireland are 7-2, Wales 9-1, Scotland 200- 1 and Italy 750-1. It is fair to say that Ireland are the best realistic bet: a side that many impartial judges believe will win the competition. They take this view quite apart from the odds on offer, which are reasonably generous as these things go.

The odds may not seem generous at all to those who have loyally backed the boys in green over the years at 14-1 or thereabouts on the theory that, if Brian O'Driscoll scores some tries and Ronan O'Gara kicks his goals, it will be all right on the night. But the view seems to be that if they do not win the Championship this time round, they are never going to win it.

They certainly have the luck of the draw, meeting England in Dublin and France in the same spot two weeks later. They have probably the best pair of locks in Europe in Paul O'Connell and Malcolm O'Kelly. Their centres, O'Driscoll and Gordon D'Arcy, recall a more generous age, though D'Arcy will be challenged by Gavin Henson of Wales for a place in the Lions XV.

Above all, in these violent and risky times, they are relatively free of injury. Even Denis Hickie, one of the quickest wings in the northern hemisphere on the select occasions when he is fit, is able to take the field against Italy in Rome on Sunday.

Ireland will presumably win this match. But they could come unstuck against Scotland at Murrayfield and the match against Wales in Cardiff on the last Saturday of the Six Nations season could well see them go down. Never underestimate the capacity of the Irish to win the matches they are expected to lose, and to lose those they are expected to win.

At 9-1, Wales are the team for a flutter. Nevertheless their forwards are a source of some worry and not just the front five, either. If Mike Ruddock, the Wales coach, had taken my advice, he would have been in even greater trouble than that in which he now finds himself. This was to settle on Colin Charvis at No 6 and Martyn Williams at No 7. If he had shared my view, he would now be looking for two replacement flankers instead of one.

There was a time in Wales, long ago, when the open-side wing forward was a player who in glamour ranked with a centre or even an outside-half. No longer. There is no acknowledged third choice after Williams and Charvis, who is not a natural No 7 in any case.

The backs are more encouraging. They usually are. The shift of Iestyn Harris back to rugby league has not weakened the team, for Harris's place was never wholly secure. Wrongly so, and Gavin Henson has proved a more than adequate substitute. Oddly enough, he strikes me as a player who would be equally suited to league. The former Welsh player of whom he most reminds me is Terry Price, who spent all his top-class rugby career at full-back and then went to the bad, poor chap.

Like Price, Henson has a tremendous boot. It would be a pity for Wales to waste it. I hope Ruddock can devise some satisfactory division of labour between Henson and Stephen Jones. The obvious solution is to give the longer kicks to Henson, whether they are to touch or at goal. This is what Scotland did with Craig Chalmers and Gavin Hastings when they were lucky enough to have both in the side.

Just as people say that if Ireland do not win the Six Nations this season, they never will, so also are they saying - equally irrationally - that, in the England match, it is now or never for Wales. Despite my doubts, and even though the odds are not specially inviting, I have decided to back France, who have served me well over the years.

My other investment is of pounds 50 in Leicester to win the Heineken Cup at 11-2. If they can beat Leinster at Lansdowne Road, they have two home matches. The first is, probably, against Toulouse in England, though not at Welford Road. The final is at Murrayfield, goodness knows why, for it has lately become something of a rugby mausoleum. But at least the Tigers' fans will be able to get there up the motorway with comparative ease.

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